In what might be the most widely predicted championship matchup in recent sports history, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will battle for the NBA crown once again. Each team bulldozed their way through the competition this postseason, with the Warriors making history in their 12-0 playoff run through the Western Conference. The Cavaliers path to the championship involved only one loss to the Celtics, while LeBron moved past Michael Jordan on the all-time playoff scoring list.
The two teams split their first two Finals matchups, and now Steph and LeBron will face off for act three in a trilogy with the potential to stretch out longer than the Star Wars saga. TUC has everything you need to know leading up to Game 1 at Oracle Arena.
You can argue there’s better backcourts in NBA history than Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but none of them exist in 2017. That includes the Cleveland Cavaliers, and while Kyrie Irving is a premiere player at his position, he won’t be enough to even the matchup.
In their five years together as full time starters, the “Splash Brothers” have posted the five highest season totals for combined three-pointers made in NBA history. They bested their own record each time in their first four seasons, and might have topped it a fifth time if not for the addition of all-world player Kevin Durant.
Kyrie’s playmaking potential will make it interesting when he’s on the court, but when he’s on the bench, the Cavs don’t have reinforcements who can compete with the Warriors. Deron Williams and Kyle Korver (10.7 ppg in 35 games with Cleveland) were nice midseason acquisitions, but they can’t anchor the second unit the same way 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala can for the Warriors.
Advantage: Golden State
What the Cavaliers lack in shooters, they make up in physicality. Kevin Love averaged a double double during the season and in the playoffs, and Tristan Thompson was fourth in the league in offensive rebounds during the season. LeBron James can crash the boards from either the small forward or the power forward position, and will make his presence felt all over the court for his hometown team.
Kevin Durant has been awesome for the Warriors this season, meshing brilliantly with their backcourt and adding yet another dimension to the potent Golden State offense. He gets his Finals rematch with LeBron five years after falling woefully short with the Thunder in 2012, and will come out motivated to finally earn that championship ring.
Draymond Green is another playmaker, and his elevated play this postseason was a huge part of Golden State’s unblemished run. On a team starting four all-stars there’s no way Zaza Pachulia couldn’t be the weakest link, and against the Cavaliers he may find his minutes scaled back if they go with a small ball lineup.
KD and Draymond are impact players, but LeBron’s utter dominance combined with the rebounding prowess of Cleveland’s big men give them the edge.
Golden State’s Keys to Victory
The Warriors are the superior team on paper, and are their own biggest obstacle to a championship. Holding their focus through the series is paramount, unless Kevin Durant wants to learn firsthand what it’s like to endure an offseason of 3-1 jokes. Everyone on the team has something to prove, a rare occurrence for a team just one season removed from a historical 73-9 record. Curry needs to show his poor performance in last year’s Finals was because of his injured knee, and that he can live up to the name he has created for himself when under pressure. Klay Thompson must atone for his 2 of 10 shooting from behind the arc in last year’s Game 7, and Durant will be the most ridiculed man in sports if he joins the team he couldn’t beat in the playoffs and still can’t win a ring.
Perhaps the player with the most to prove is Draymond Green, who rightfully shouldered much of the blame after last years debacle. Green missed a pivotal Game 5 against the Cavaliers due to array of avoidable technical calls, and watched as the Cavaliers climbed back into the series and stole the momentum. Green has done a much better job restraining himself this postseason, and must continue to do so in the Finals to be the playmaker his team needs against the defending champions.
Cleveland’s Keys to Victory
The Cavaliers must play smart basketball, and avoid costly turnovers if they don’t want to be run out of the building. Golden State led the league in points off turnovers this season, and has made a penchant for starting spirit-draining runs off a steal and a quick three. Cleveland will struggle to build leads against the Warriors stout defense, and could see a three point deficit turn to double digits in the blink of an eye if they get sloppy with the ball.
When the dust settled after Game 7 last season, the Cavaliers were on top of the basketball world, and will need to play with that in mind in this series. They need to impose their will early and often in the series, and remind the Warriors that they are the challengers to the throne, not the ruling house. If Cleveland can strike fear in its opponents’ hearts early, the Warriors might start to play out of rhythm, panicking as LeBron and his teammates outmuscle them up and down the court.
Golden State’s X-Factor: Steph Curry
The X-Factor isn’t supposed to be an MVP-caliber player who will go down as one of the best shooters in NBA history. But again, the Warriors are sending four all-stars out onto the court every night, and they don’t need an unsung hero.
Steph doesn’t have to be superman, and keep his team in the game by putting it all on his back. Golden State just needs its point guard to do what he’s done all season, and not come up short when it matters the most.
Steph Curry averaged over 26 points and 6 assists when the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals. The following year, those totals dipped to 22.6 points and less than 4 assists a game, with only 17 points in Game 7 as Draymond Green put up superstar numbers in his place. With yet another star on the roster this season, Steph’s job shouldn’t be that difficult. But if he comes up small, Kyrie Irving could outplay him and steal some games for the Cavaliers.
Cleveland Cavaliers X-Factor: Kevin Love
Love didn’t play well at all in last years finals. The power forward averaged a paltry 8.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg while battling a head injury, and was outshined by his replacement Richard Jefferson while he sat out Game 3. Physicality is a necessity if the Cavaliers hope to stand a chance, and Love needs to be a force on the glass and a reliable scorer.
As rumblings of a potential trade began to surface, Love picked up his game this season, becoming the player the Cavaliers were hoping for when they traded away Andrew Wiggins to acquire him. In the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, he was sensational, putting up 22.6 ppg and 12.4 rpg a night. He’ll need to have that same impact against Golden State, and be a strong inside presence for the defending champs.
Best Shameless Corporate Promotion: Taco Bell
Steal a game, steal a taco. For those relatively uninterested in which team takes the title, Taco Bell hopes the promise of a free Doritos Loco Taco can provide an incentive to root for a team. If the road team wins a game at any point in the series, the company will give out free tacos for a day, all over America. Because what symbolizes the preparation, focus, and execution that goes into winning a Finals game on the road like free taco meat?
Taco Bell ran the promotion for the first time last year, and Golden State made it happen in Game 4 in Cleveland. There’s a good chance the Cavaliers go down 0-2 again to start the series in Oakland, so Games 3 and 4 might be the most likely places to see a road victory.
Song that will sum up the 2017 NBA Finals: Drake – “How About Now”
The Warriors were memed and roasted into internet history for blowing a 3-1 lead last season, and the jokes will probably continue somewhere even if they follow through this time around. Critics labeled Curry as “soft,” thinking he didn’t have the right mindset to take down the king of the basketball world, LeBron James. Draymond Green was dragged through the mud for his antics, as people called him out time and time again for costing his team with technical fouls.
The addition of Kevin Durant in the offseason changed public opinion from ridicule of the team to ridicule and hatred, and placed a target squarely on each player’s back. Hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy amid the confetti and champagne showers in two weeks, however, three words will be enough for the Warriors to silence all others: “how about now?”
The superteam will be certified with a championship, and assuming Kevin Durant resigns in the offseason, it will be established for years to come. Even if they can’t do it in four games and achieve a 16-0 playoff record, a series victory would put them in the conversation for the best postseason run in basketball history after blowing out opponents by over 16 points on average.
Just like Drake’s ghostwriting accusers, there will be those who argue the Warriors “cheated” their way to the top by signing the best player to hit free agency since LeBron himself, and place an asterisk next to their title. But Durant won’t care when he’s sobbing through his NBA Finals MVP speech, finally holding the crown that eluded him so many years in Oklahoma City.
Prediction: Warriors win series, 4-1